One of our decadent pleasures we allow ourselves is to spend a lot of money on a babysitter three or four times a year and drive down to the Maine State Music Theater in Brunswick to see a musical. I’ve blogged about a show before, when I saw a superb performance of Les Miserables about two years ago.
Today as we were heading down we were contemplating not buying the whole season package next year. It’s expensive — the babysitter costs as much as the tickets, and it takes away weekend days (though we could change to an evening show). Because of our tickets we also had to miss a recital a friend was performing today, something we regretted. On the plus side, we treat ourselves to great Indian cuisine when we go (though our favorite restaurant was closed today), but do we need to go to every show? Today’s show, Always Patsy Cline was a case in point. I had no idea for sure who Patsy Cline was. I thought she was some kind of country singer from the past, but this is one show we’d have chosen to skip if we didn’t have season tickets. Today turned out to be an argument in favor of getting season tickets.
Patsy Cline was indeed a country music star in the late fifties and early sixties, though that was an era when the line between rock n’ roll and country was not so clear cut. Her songs (which, of course, filled the musical) were country, but not twany or silly. In fact, they were excellent, I loved the music. I learned that Patsy Cline died at the age of 30, at the peak of her career (for many she was as big as Elvis) in a plane wreck in 1963. I also learned a bit about our culture and the music of that era.
To be sure, this wasn’t a powerful or emotional musical. Often I have tears in my eyes, or am very moved by the message and emotion of a show. This time I wasn’t — only the lullaby song (with Patsy missing her baby while on the road) got close to evoking a tear. Still, it was a very meaningful show.
There were only two actors — Jenny Lee Stern played Patsy. Not knowing Cline’s music, I had no basis to judge her portrayal of the past star. But the Sunday Matinee brings out a lot of elderly patrons (I think the average age in the theater was about 65), and I heard murmurs that “she is very good” or “she’s really hitting the mark.” Stern is far more petite than the real Cline, but has a powerful voice and made me a fan. The other was Charis Leos, a Maine State Music Theater regular who played Louise Seger, a friend of Patsy’s. Charis is a regular at MSMT, and always gives a popular, humorous performance. She had fun with the role and injected the necessary comedy to make the musical memorable.
Apparently Louise Seger met Patsy in Houston at a concert, and they became friends. The musical looks at Patsy through the lens of this friendship, a kind of “average fan” getting to know a singer who is a real human despite the fame. Patsy comes off as a lovable, generous, and down to earth star, who is taken aback by the ride she’s on, enjoying it but also overwhelmed by all that is happening. From internet research I know that she had a tremendous stage and media presence, using radio and TV effectively to create a positive image. Jenny Lee Stern portrayed that aspect of her career very well; it really worked.
The show not only got me curious about Patsy Cline, but also about that era in US cultural history. Rock music was just emerging as a force of its own, spawned by country with an infusion of jazz and an emphasis on rhythm. The Beatles would later push rock in a different direction; in Patsy Cline’s time the line between country and rock/pop was thin. Pop was still more folk like Frank Sanatra and Andy Williams, rock was closer to country. Patsy, like her contemporary Elvis Presley, moved that line closer. One has to wonder what would have happened had she lived.
The musical gave some insight on what life was like in that era, a kind of magical time in US cultural history, as modern materialist consumer society was just being born. The depression and WWII were recent history, but wealth and prosperity were growing, people were yearning to own homes and acquire part of the “American dream.” People still saved, credit cards were not yet in use, and the Cold War was in force. The car was starting to dominate US culture, but fears of oil shortages, deep oil well spills and global climate change were still decades away. Most oil came from the US, not the Mideast.
And, as is often the case, I returned from the show and started looking up information on line — was Louise Seger a real person (yes she was), getting more information on Patsy Cline, watching some Youtube videos, and thinking about how, had she lived, she’d now be nearing eighty years old. Instead, she died in her prime, forever young. When I think about cases like that I realize that we make life too difficult when we worry, stress out over small things, judge others, or expect the world to be a certain way. You live, and you never know when it will end. The key is to live fully, and at least in music and image, Patsy Cline did so.
I also feel enriched that I learned about a country music icon who until yesterday was just a name I vaguely recognized as having something to do with music. It may not have had the powerful message of Les Miserables, but it was fun and I learned something. Enjoyment and education — that’s what life is all about, after all!